Monthly Archives: April 2021

“Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier” by Emanuel Xavier— Reviewing a Friend

Xavier, Emanuel. “Selected Poems of Emanuel Xavier”, Queermojo, 2021.

Reviewing a Friend

Amos Lassen

I first met Emanuel Xavier in person some 14 years ago at the Saints and Sinners Literary Festival in New Orleans. I was already familiar with his poetry and I loved it so meeting him was a highlight of that weekend. We became friends immediately this making it difficult for me to be objective about what he writes but I soon found no need to let how I personally felt about the man influence his poems. Each and every poem, in his “Selected poems of Emanuel Xavier” is a gem and I as I sat rereading many that I had either read before or heard him read made me realize just how important he is, not only to the LGBTQ community but to the larger world of literature.

Xavier came to us after being homeless and a victim of a hate crime and was soon recognized as both important and controversial. His poems fill the reader with inspiration and give us a sense of power. Seeing one of our own become so respected is very special yet he has never lost where he came from. Here he brings us 28 of his poems that are personal, political and social. He shares what he went through as a gay Latino in a world that was often homophobic. We cannot help but feel the pin he suffered and rejoice at his success. He had been sexually abused in childhood, grew up in a one bedroom apartment with his mother and her boyfriend. He came out as a teenager during the AIDS epidemic and soon found himself living on the streets. Returning home, he was not allowed to discuss his sexuality and had to lead a life filled with secrets. It was not until later that he found gay New York along with the drugs that were part of it. Working at a gay bookstore, he had the chance to meet people, including gay writers and was introduced to the works of those who frequented the store and discovering that much of what he read was a reflection of his own life. Discovering a community of people pf color, he became a “pier queen” and began to put his thoughts into words. The rest of this you can read in the preface to the book. I wanted to emphasize what he came out and for us to be ready to see what that background brought to us. Through the collected poems here, we follow Xavier’s journey and we feel his pain and rejoice in his successes. In the very first poem, Xavier sets an unexpected tone for what is to follow, “We will keep on smiling, from the dancefloor, and we will keep on smiling from the bar…”.

I am so pleased that we have “Deliverance” here in all of his brutal honest verse. I remember my reaction when I first heard Xavier read this and then my reaction when I read it at home my myself. It was then that he became a literary and personal hero of mine.

“Where were you when I was three

Getting fucked up the ass by older cousin…”

“After all I am still your son

I am still your little boy

Aren’t I?

Daddy?”

You can clearly see how personal this poem is as it reflects the poet’s journey but we see something else in this collection. In sharing his voice, Xavier also lets rise the voices of those we do not often see or hear, those who have been cast aside by society. Desire and compassion merge as we read and we find ourselves checking our inner feelings. At the same time, the past, the present and the future merge within us just as the poet moves from the poetry of anger and rage to the poetry of wisdom. It seems that Xavier does not know the meaning of the word fear as he writes about our community of the queer, the transgendered, those who do not fit into what the American Dream came to represent. That dream is for all of us as we see in the final book, “Beside Myself”. “Yes worry. Your time has come and gone…”.But we can resurrect that time and make sure that our community is one for all of us especially after reading what it has cost us. Let Xavier’s prophetic voice guide you are you read and reconsider who you are by looking at the truths of the poet’s life. We immediately feel that humanity exists and it is ours to claim.

Robinson, IL. and Other Flash Fiction Stories” by Dennis Milam Bensie— Welcome to Robinson, Illinois and to Yourself

Bensie, Dennis Milam. “Robinson, IL. and Other Flash Fiction Stories”, Dennis Milam Bensie, 2021.

Welcome to Robinson, Illinois and to Yourself

Amos Lassen

Flash fiction is defined as a very short story. it can be as short as a few words as opposed to short stories that usually are made up of several pages. This is what Dennis Milam Bensie brings us in “Robinson, IL and Other Flash Fiction Stories”, a  collection of original work that look at short moments in life and he does so in a few words each. Each story stands alone as we read of  family, politics, adolescence, sex, racism and identity. Filled with sharp wit, we read of who we are yet disguised as other characters. I was amazed at how much I could learn in such short pieces.

There is a weirdness to some of the stories and that is probably because there is also a weirdness to some of our lives thus making some of what we read relevant to who we are. Granted I have never visited a Nazi gay bar yet between the lines of that story that rang very true to me. The twenty-seven selections here made me sit up and have a good look at myself and wonder how I would have reacted had I been part of the same situations.

It is difficult to review these stories without giving something away so I suggest that you get a copy and enjoy what is here.  This review like the stories is short because of that very reason. You will be entertained and amused and you will do introspection. After all, isn’t that the point of literature— to make us think?

“Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Growth and Resilience from Jewish Women” by Shira Lankin Sheps— Inspiring Jewish Women

Sheps, Shira Lankin. “Layers: Personal Narratives of Struggle, Growth and Resilience from Jewish Women”, The Toby Press, 2021.

Inspiring Jewish Women

Amos Lassen

Shira Lankin Sheps’s “Layers” is a collection of over thirty personal narratives about the challenges and triumphs of Jewish women living in Israel. Each chapter is written in the particular voice of one women who gives  her story that is filled with “raw emotion and universal experiences.” These women teach us how to love through suffering and how to live beyond heartache. We see how to be sensitive to those who are different from us and open our minds to new realities.

Topics include pregnancy loss and infertility, physical and mental health, grief, conversion, disability, antisemitism, terrorism, and more. What we see is the diversity of background and commonality of experience that connects us. Full-color images along with spaces and exercises for guided reading, contemplation, and discussion pull us into the women’s lives and we gain a personal and thought-provoking experience while reading.

“The Halloween Moon” by Joseph Fink— Saving Halloween

Fink, Joseph. “The Halloween Moon”,  Quill Tree Books, 2021.

Saving Halloween

Amos Lassen

Esther Gold, an eighth-grader is obsessed with Halloween but when she went trick-or treating last year she discovered that a mysterious presence is haunting her town. Her parents felt that she was too old to go trick-or-treating but she was a step ahead and had planned her outing ahead of time. Then she realized that no one is answering their door and that the moon has a strange glow. The streets are populated with strange children wearing creepy costumes that might not be costumes at all. It seems like the only people besides Esther who are awake to see  what is going on are her best friend, her school bully, and her neighbor, a dentist.

The tree come together to find a way to lift the curse that has been placed on their small town. It seems that someone wants to make sure Halloween never comes to an end. Esther doesn’t want to be trapped in Halloween forever.

This is a fun read that is so much more than a mystery. It’s about change and growing up and a perfect read for those who want to grow up while wishing they could remain kids. We also look at racial and religious bullying. The characters are wonderfully drawn and complex and there is a fascinating look at siblings and their relationships.

“SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF A PLAY”— Eccentrics and Life

“SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF A PLAY”

Eccentrics and Life

Amos Lassen

In “Six Characters in Search of a Play”, director Del brings us six one-of-a-kind characters that he has met in real life and shares how he collected these eccentrics and their stories. The film comes out of the imagination of the director as he looks at daily events in the lives of the characters. This was originally a one-man show. It begins with Shores telling us that the characters are people he has met in his life and then he exaggerates them as we meet one man and five women.Aunt Bobby Sue is a Republican racist with a “heart of gold”; Yvonne is an anti-vegetarian waitress who rants; Sarah is a Trump-hating elderly actress who is a smoker and drinker who uses an inhaler; Jimmy Ray is a redneck from Georgia who loves Magic Mike; Lorraine was once a drama teacher obsessed with porn; Marsha is a “monkey-hating” lesbian with COPD. All of them are larger-than-life Southerners and Shores breathes life into them. It is obvious that Shores loves these characters and by the time the film is over, so do we.

“MY DEAD ONES”— Fractured Realities

“MY DEAD ONES”

Fractured Realities

Amos Lassen

Davi (Nicolas Prattes) is a film school student who spends most of his life looking at life through a lens. He meets Jonatas (Andre Hendges) and their new romance tales place as brutal murders that might be connected to Davi’s troubled and mysterious past take place. People begin to talk about of a killer on campus and the truth begins to emerge.

Director Diego Freitas brings us a horror story about a damaged and vulnerable young man. David’s entire world view is unreliable, chaotic and fragmented. His life is filled with fantastical horror that both unnerves him and bothers those who watch the film. Through themes of belonging, bullying and escapism, we explore Davi’s character. The link between his filmmaking and his view of it as experimental art pervades the film.

Whether Davi is a serial killer is not the main idea here. Rather, the film concentrates on why he does it. He is going through great changes. He is a serial killer who films his crimes and then uploads them to the Internet and makes himself a celebrity. He is also dealing with his sexuality.

Focus constantly shifts as we watch Davi go through life. There are influences on him everywhere— his love of film, family, childhood, sexuality and his loss of reality. However, these is not much here that we have not seen before and while the acting is quite good, I felt that something was missing. Yet, the ending makes the film worthwhile but you do need patience to reach that point.

“Filthy Animals” by Brandon Taylor— Desire and Violence

Taylor, Brandon. “Filthy Animals”, Riverhead Books, 2021.

Desire and Violence

Amos Lassen

In “Filthy Animals”, writer Brando Taylor introduces us to a group of young adults enmeshed in desire and violence through a series of linked stories. In one story, a young man goes through a series of sexually fraught encounters with two dancers in an open relationship. He is forced to face his vulnerabilities and his loneliness. In another stories, a young woman battles with cancer in her body and in the bodies of and the undercurrents among a group of teenagers that become violent one night. In yet another story, a little girl drives her babysitter to the brink. We also read about couples dealing with issues of connection, comfort, and cruelty.

Taylor looks at the tensions among friends and family, lovers and others giving us a tender portrait of desire for intimacy, pain, and the hope for love that withholds it.

TheMidwesterners we meet live deep inside their own heads as they attempt to move into the lives of others. He looks at various taboos as he explores the discomfort of life. In every other story, we return toCharles and Sophie, two dancers in an open relationship, and Lionel, the man who becomes involved with them. While the other stories stand on their own, they share a sense of divergent concerns and present young people as they deal with life.

“JOACHIM PRINZ: I SHALL NOT BE SILENT”— Speaking Out

“JOACHIM PRINZ: I SHALL NOT BE SILENT”

Speaking Out

Amos Lassen

The civil rights of Jews were taken away in Berlin in the 1930s. Joachim Prinz, a young rabbi there who refused to be silent about and was determined to restore the self- esteem of the Jews of Germany even while aware the Nazis were watching his every move and listening to whatever he said.  He was arrested again and again yet this did not stop him and he  continued to openly speak about the value of Judaism. He saved many lives by encouraging Jews to emigrate from Germany.

In 1937, he was expelled from Germany and came to the United States, a country that he thought did not have the problems of hatred and bigotry but he soon learned that racism against African Americans in this country was the reality.

Prinz was rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, NJ and later became President of the American Jewish Congress and a leader of the civil rights movement. He worked to organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom stating that “bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent problem, he said was silence. Throughout his career, Prinz spoke out against injustice. He found his identity and used the slogan,  “Remember the Biblical adage, ‘For the sake of Zion, I shall not be silent.”

The film captures the realism of the Civil Rights movement through raw footage and the speeches by Joachim Prinz. We see the commonalities between Jewish oppression and black oppression.

It was just minutes before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, Prinz took the podium. What he said on that day in 1963 brought together what he had experienced in Nazi Germany and his personal commitment to fighting racism in this country. “When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things”. More than anything that he learned was that the greatest problem was not speaking out.

Prinz died in 1988 and his life was witness to the darkest period in the history of the world but he also saw the beginnings of the triumph of the civil rights movement. In this film directed by Rachel Pasternak and Rachel Fisher, we learn about his efforts to have an American devoid of racism and safe for all people. Through archival footage, photos and interviews with family and friends, his story comes alive.  

Pasternak discovered Prinz’s unpublished memoirs in the basement of his daughter’s home when she was thinking a research topic for her graduate work. She felt that she had to share his story with the world. Working with her co-director, Rachel Fisher, we get a picture of a man who did so much so that we can live in a world where we are all the same. For those who have forgotten that, the film shows us just how to remember.

“SHARED LEGACIES”— Working Together, Building Communities

“SHARED LEGACIES”

Working Together, Building Communities

Amos Lassen

In “Shared Legacies”, directorShari Rogers carefully shares what can happen if we work together. We live in a time of great division in which anti-Semitism and hate crimes are on the rise, yet we forget the importance of knowing each other and working together. This was not always true and we seem to have lost what we once had.

The film focuses on the coalition between the African and Jewish American communities during the Civil Rights era and shows us how “shared experiences of discrimination can foster bonds of unity.” The Black and Jewish communities were often thrown because of oppression and racism that existed in America. Their fight for equality was the same even though the historical periods were different. Both groups understood the physical and emotional scars they harbored and which often “span generations and come from years of trauma.” We clearly see that once a culture has been enslaved (as both African-Americans and Jewish people were), the effects are permanent.  However, the film does not look at scars and compare them. Rather it looks at the collaboration and friendship between the two groups. We see what can be achieved even with our differences as we come together against hate. We especially see this in the friendship between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Heschel. They shared mutual respect for each other, and an understanding of how  the Black and Jewish struggles are interwoven. They both knew “the importance of people lifting each other up in the face of a system designed to keep one group down.”

It is not always safe to stand up for others but to remain silent and say and do nothing is even more damaging. We see this with Rabbi Milton Louis Grafman who went so far as to challenge his temple not to be idle as Black people felt the effects of racism in Alabama. Kivie Kaplan, who served as president of the NAACP from 1966-1975 at a time when it was not possible to be just an observer. It was important to fight for what was right. We really see this in 1964 when three activists, Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney, and Michael Henry Schwerner where murdered by members of the Ku Klux Klan.  It was not a time when white men killed other white men who were helping Black men. The three deaths were a wakeup call that reminded us if such atrocities could happen to the African-American community they could happen anywhere. There are vulnerabilities whenever communities are pulled apart. 

After the deaths of Heschel and King, bond between Blacks and Jews began to break. The break was the result of external forces, including the media that began narratives that pitted the two sides against one another. This split widened between the communities of late and the goal of this film is to find a way to come together again.

There is a lot archival footage and interviews with those who took part in the coalitions letting us see  the importance of coming together against hate and injustice.

The film chronicles the coalition between Black and Jewish Americans before, during, and after the Civil Rights movement. Many of us know this story and there are those of us who lived through it but there are others who need to know it now. We came together though our shared experiences of trauma, enslavement, and discrimination  and now we are to take it as a call to action for that bond to be reinstated now.

Through first and second-hand accounts of Holocaust survivors, members of the King family, and prominent political and religious figures such as Congressman John Lewis, Ambassador Andrew Young, incoming Georgia Senator, Reverend Raphael Warnock, Rabbi Peter S. Berg, and Rabbi Alvin Sugarman, we learn a great deal. The effects of slavery and the Holocaust are still very prominent today and have become very deep scars. We do not have to compare our scars in order to find solidarity against the horrors of  antisemitism, anti-Black racism, hate speech, and police brutality.

One of the reasons for the Black-Jewish relationship to strengthen in recent years, has been the rise of antisemitism and racial inequality and systemic racism in this country. However, it is upsetting that many people are unfamiliar with the historical interconnection of Jews and Blacks.

“THEY AIN’T READY FOR ME”— Leading the Fight

“THEY AIN’T READY FOR ME”

Leading the Fight

Amos Lassen

“They Ain’t Ready for Me” is a documentary about Tamar Manasseh, the African American rabbinical student who is leading the fight against senseless killings on the south side of Chicago. Manessah, a mother of two, everyday sits on the corner of 75th Street and South Stewart Avenue in the Englewood section of Chicago in the ghetto, a place where poverty, unemployment, addiction, and violence are everywhere. When a young mother was shot and killed while trying to break up a fight in 2015, Tamar felt that this was senseless killing was one too many. She was tired of waiting for politicians to do something and decided to act on her own and she decided that she would sit on that corner. This simple act was also an act of revolution.  Since then, there has not been a single person killed on the block.

Tamar  founded and the organization, MASK, (Mothers and Men Against Senseless Killings) and through it she has proven that the situation is not one of no hope and that there are things that can be done to change things.  Just her presence, sitting there,  gives hope to those who live in the neighborhood. Yet that is not enough for Tamar who was born both Black and Jewish. She is also a rabbinical student with a perspective that not. That many others can say they have. She still has to struggle for acceptance in the Jewish world but she understands her communities and acts on that understanding. She faces challenges while working to stop gun violence and her Judaism influences her activism.

Director Brad Rothschild had intimate insider access to Tamar and he takes us into Tamar’s world. We get a documented picture of what really goes on in Chicago’s South Side that gives us the feeling that we are there. We immediately love Tamar and see her as the leader she is. Her determination is stunning as is her deep commitment to her community as she simply sits on the corner, raising awareness about the violence there. She is a strong voice for those who may otherwise not be listened to or even heard.

We see the influence of her rabbinical studies as she leads a Jewish congregation. She provides comfort and relief to the members of the Synagogue and her roles as both a community leader and a rabbi reflect her personality and her natural ability to provide hope for others. She emanates warmth and we especially see this as the film nears the end. She, along with a few others, have organized a block party for the community. It is not only a chance for neighbors to come together but also a place that is filled with warmth and feelings. We cannot help but share the peace that the participants enjoy as well as Tamar’s spirit and the empathy she radiates.

During the first part of the film, there is not much about Judaism until we see Tamar reading the Torah in her synagogue. From this point on, the film examines the links between The Jewish religion and the Black community. While this does not happen all at once, when it does, it is amazing.